Walk Through Washington:

Last night I did a presentation at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. After it was over someone asked me about my travel schedule and whether or not I get a chance to shoot while I’m on the road. The short answer is “Yes,” but most of the time that means simply grabbing an image here and there. It is rare I get a chance to really go look, see, work, shoot, etc.

Recently I was in Washington DC for Fotoweek DC and DID have a small window to get out and shoot. When I say small window I mean a few hours one afternoon. So, I tried to take advantage and “walk with a purpose” if you will. The purpose in this case was Bob McNeely. Bob is a photographer, a good one, and has a place firmly cemented in the history of American politics and American photography, not to mention he was friends with Hunter Thompson, which in my book is maybe the coolest thing ever. Bob was President Clinton’s photographer, but more importantly he is a very nice guy who is very fun to spend time with and is loaded with all kinds of great stories. In addition he has a true love of photography, and I say this not as a obvious trait. There are plenty of successful photographers who don’t have a love for the game. Remember, I assisted for years, I’ve worked for a few. When I hang out with Bob I can feel how entwined he is with the idea of really being a photographer. It’s not what he does it is who he is.

Whenever I visit Washington I walk through the monuments. This is really the only city I do this, and I can’t entirely tell you why. I just do. I called Bob to see if he wanted to join me and thus began our little stroll. Walking these particular streets with Bob was fantastic, and gave me a brief glimpse into the life of a Washington insider.

I tried to make images that gave me a feeling of our surroundings and the particular happenings of the day, which in this case was the beginnings of the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam Memorial. The photography of the Vietnam War was what convinced me I needed to be a photographer, so for me particular place has a special meaning. Being November, the light looks and feels late well before it’s time, so I found myself with a mood I could work with.

You never know what you are doing to see in this section of the city. This section is emotional ground, it’s historical and magnetic. A lot of important feet have covered this turf and for some reason I feel very much at home in this place. It’s rare I get to shoot with anyone else, so it was fun spending time with Bob, learning a bit more and just getting to hang out. His place in this city, and our industry, is unique. Bob did the official Obama Inauguration book and I’m sure has much more in the works in the very near future.

Turning the Table

The day has finally arrived. The tables have been turned and now the hunter has become the hunted. Kman is angling toward that strange and beautiful world of photography, and Uncle Dan is in his crosshairs. These are the first 6×6 images for Kman and the first time he ever put his hands on the Hasselblad. I of course snapped him snapping me and my favorite princess tagged along because that is what little sisters do.

This was a short session. We braved the hundred degree temps, scorpions and chiggers to wade our way through one roll of the beloved TRI-X. As you can see he shares my fondness for all things backlit. Smart kid. This story began a few months ago when my mom told me that Kman was in the front yard with her camera and had been out there for hours. “There isn’t anything out there, so I’m not entirely sure what he is doing,” she said.

Weeks later my brother said, “You need to see these pictures.” “I’m not saying they are great but there is a purpose behind them, he is looking for something.” All of this, of course, peaked my interest. Into the mail went a box of film, a lens and a Leica point-and-shoot.

This trip I knew we would get a chance, however brief, to talk about photography and also give him a chance to get his grubby mitts on the Blad. He isn’t a “screen kid” thank God, so his interest isn’t in seeing anything right away or sitting inside on his computer.

An arrangement has been made. Shoot your film and save it up. Ship it to uncle Dan who will edit and print. I’ll then make my critique and ship everything back. A one on one if you will. At our pace. No hurry, no rush, no need for anything other than a bit of critical, 13-year-old thinking.

This kid is a thinker. He is very thoughtful, quiet until the dam bursts and then impossible to turn off. I’m not sure what goes through the head of a modern 13-year-old but I have a feeling I’m about to find out.

Taste of Uruguay: Portrait of a Place

You ever hear a motion picture director talk about how a location became one of the characters in a film? “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” is very much about location. “The Motorcycle Diaries,” and even films like “Seven” where you don’t ever know where you are but it’s so foreboding and dark, not to mention rainy, that you can just FEEL how horrible things are about to get based only on the depressing cityscape. Still photography works the same, at least when you are trying to tell a story. These images were made in Uruguay while we were working on our project. These images were made in the same place as the last post, the exact same place, but these images have a different feel, and if they had to could live on their own as a mini-snapshot of place.

I described before how we move from small shoot to small shoot while compiling a story. You imagine the puzzle in your head and you slowly begin to link the edges and then dive in deep to fill up the center. So when we arrived on this scene my goal was to make the images I made in the last post, but while I was there I realized that this little room, in this one little building, was also something I needed to have a little feel for. Looking back on this I realized I am missing ONE very important image which was the bar at the opposite side of the room. It was, well, the perfect neighborhood bar. Why didn’t I shoot it? I don’t know. I can see the bar in infinite detail, in my mind, but I didn’t shoot it. Oh well, just another mistake in a LONG LINE of mistakes I’ve made with camera in hand.

These images become important for a variety of reasons. First, for your memory. Regardless of whether or not you ever use these images it’s nice to look back on them and say, “Oh ya, I remember that place.” These type images also come into play when you make books. Sometimes the reader needs a transitional type image to set the stage for your best work. A book of nothing but your best work might be a portfolio more than a book. Books ebb and flow, so informational photographs can be as important as anything. You might use these images near a chapter head to ease into this place, space or community. We also walked through this room to get to the performers out back, so it was a link to the subsequent images.

These images are also very important to the people in them. They are proud of this place and it shows in how they behave. If you promise to send images you sure as Hell better do it. I’ve heard photographers say “Ya, I always promise and then never send anything.” On one hand I appreciate their honesty because A lot of other people claim to do this but don’t. I know for a fact because I once did a project several years after another photographer did it and it was SO BAD it was like scorched Earth. “The other guy promised us everything and gave us nothing.” It made my life Hell. In the case of these images, they didn’t ask. Or maybe they did but my Spanish was so bad I didn’t understand them? “Soy amable!” “Yo quiero leche y queso!”

The first two images here were made by myself, but after seeing me make these images the guys in the third image asked me to photograph them. In turn other people are watching while I’m making this portrait which in turn gets them, indirectly, involved in the shoot. It breaks the ice and gets the photographic ball rolling. The people you photograph are your conduit into the far reaches of your work, without them you are going nowhere. They do not see photography the same way you do, and this is something you must keep in mind the entire time you are working or showcasing your work.

Taste of Uruguay: The Mini Essay

Documentary projects are not easy. Truly great images do not happen very often, and the reality is you can spend a lot of time in the field and come home with next to nothing. You have to come to grips with the fact that the vast majority of images you make are NOT going to work. For me, this is the fun of it all. Some days I win and other days I get trampled. Most of the time documentary projects naturally break up into long delays and waiting periods mixed with frantic, intense moments of all out shooting anarchy. Like a dog on a cold winter morning after getting that first snuff of cold air up the nostrils. The hair on your arms stands up and your body and instinct goes into DEFCON 1. Again, this is why photography is so much fun. Those down periods are perfect time for reflection, doubt or angst, and the shooting periods wipe it all away, especially when you KNOW you nailed something.

Uruguay was somewhat standard in terms of a basic project.
We had an idea, we had the team, we had a basic plan and one by one we began to tick things off the list. We will be here on this day at this time and if that doesn’t work we have a plan B or we just go to the beach. Some things you feel in your heart days away. “This is going to be awesome” you think but then the reality doesn’t match your mind. In other cases you downplay a location or event and suddenly it turns into a photo-goldmine. I know that I never really know until I’m there and I see it for myself. I learned a LONG time ago NOT to pre-visualize what I EXPECT to see because it was never matches what I envisioned.

Most of the time we descend on a place or event and begin to scout.
In this case we landed at a small bar in a neighborhood in Montevideo where a Murgas group was getting ready. Not knowing what Murgas was I wasn’t really sure what to expect, which is a good thing because I was totally calm during the morning. Had I known how beautiful this scene would be I probably would have been bouncing off the walls. Arriving at this place I could see immediately how interesting, fun and important this little scene was. The sky was overcast meaning flat, broad, open-shade light which his very easy to work in. The building was old, colorful and filled with character, the EXACT opposite of Southern California. I was so happy with the architecture alone I briefly thought about growing a beard, buying an 8×10 and moving to Carmel.

What happens when you land in a place like this? What do I do? Very simple. I take stock of what is in front of me and I block everything else out of my mind and just work. I build my story in my mind. What do I have? Do I have an overall? Do I need an overall? Where is the best light? Is this better in black and white or color? Is there a personality that stands out? What do I need to show a viewer who, like me, has no idea what Murgas is? And how do these images fit in my overall story. There is a continual conversation happening in my head. And I’ll tell you something else. For me, in a strange way, this is the benefit of NOT knowing the language(at least Uruguay’s version of it.) I said ONE sentence to ONE person at this event, shortly after we had arrived, and they looked at me like I was speaking in alien tongue. They said something to someone else, then they all laughed, and I knew I was off the hook. I could be the mute guy wandering in their midst without ANY verbal responsibility.

This is NOT as good as being able to speak the language, not even close, but for someone like me who can go days without speaking to anyone, it is nice to work with ONLY my images in mind. Working with two formats, and color vs black and white, is where things get complicated. Going in here with one camera and one lens is the best thing you could do. But, we all load ourselves down with photo-baggage and ideals and then suddenly we find ourselves juggling a set of creativity balls that will at some point come crashing down. You just hope it doesn’t get to the point where you walk away with nothing. So, in this case I was looking for light, then content, and then how that scene translated. It is better in black and white or color? Both cameras were set with 50mm equivalents, so all I had to do was think “color or black and white.” When I shoot color I’m looking for the hottest part of the frame and I’m basing my exposure there, even though I’m shooting negative. This might not be the best plan for you, but after shooting transparency for so many years I’m used to this method. I look for the hottest light, which pulls me in the direction of a certain type of image. With black and white I’m looking for the exact opposite, so when I say this gets confusing now you know what I mean.

I also move from system to system making sure I don’t run out of film in both cameras at the same time, just in case something strange happens like a UFO landing on the building. Might want to have a few extra frames put aside for that one. Not running out of film comes with practice and years of being a wedding photographer where running out of film can be a disaster. I can also load my cameras without looking at them, which is a must if you are attempting to work in fast moving arenas. My camera systems have different personalities. The Blad is slow, methodical but allows me to bond with the people I’m working with. They are very much a part of the process, at least when it comes to formal portraits. I do use the Blad for reportage as well. The Leica is fast and silent. Normally by the time they think I’m shooting I’m already done. I can be right on top of someone and make several frames without being too influential in the scene. So, due to these realities, these cameras give me different style pictures. I don’t shoot a lot of portraits with the Leica and I don’t shoot a lot of fast street stuff with the Blad.

On this afternoon I worked inside out.
Again, these folks are preparing for a major public event, so they are expecting to be photographed. Okay, maybe not by two unsuspecting gringos and two other photographers, but at least they were in the mindset of knowing it might happen. So, in short, it’s an easy environment. They see me, no hiding the fact I’m there shooting so I embrace this reality and just dive in. I get close right off the bat which allows the others to see how I work, and I how close I get, in some way breaking the ice for the entire scene. Even if I don’t want images that close I’ll do it anyway just to set the visual table for what I want to do next. This is a game people. We take and we give. We make it easy on some people and hard on others. We can be nice and we can be not so nice. Every scene is different. And you are constantly weighting how bad you want something. I tend to be pretty mellow. I know now the power that photography has, or more importantly, the power photography DOESN’T have.

In some way, the lives of the people in these images is in my hand.
I’m not the most important thing here, and I never have been. We are simply a conduit and translator. I’ve never understood the ego and attitude from the photography world. We aren’t doing anything special other than translating a scene already in front of us. So, you have to keep that in mind when you work in places like this. They are trusting you to do what you do to the HIGHEST level possible. If you half-ass it, it will show in the work and how you represent them. Don’t know your gear, don’t have the right software, use to many filters and it reflects on them and photography in general. We owe it to them to do what is right.

Doing what is right takes time, practice and critical thought.
If you are thinking about your gear you are missing the point. If you are thinking about how you are going to share this on social media, while you are shooting, you probably won’t connect at the level you need to. Save that for later. This work is about history, documentation and making a UNIQUE visual statement that has your fingerprints on it. There are so many images being created today that it’s easy to get lost in the storm. I’ve seen sub-par photographs get hundreds of “likes” and the dreaded “awesome work man.” If you are going to be serious about photography you have to clear your mind and truly see what is in front of you, then filter it through your brain to find the perspective that makes you…well, you. Again, it ain’t easy. From a trip like this I MIGHT have three, four maybe five images I would keep in the long run.

After a very short period of time I have a range of work from this scene.
I unzip the top pocket on my backpack to see how many rolls I’ve exposed. It feels good but means little. I do it cause I’m twisted. And then I try to forget everything I’ve seen, even though it is right in front of me, and I try to see the scene with new eyes. What did I take for granted? What did I miss because I made decisions quickly? Do I need to step back? Is something unhealthy influencing my images? And then, time permitting, I start again. I sit and I watch. And I watch, and watch and watch to see what I didn’t see the first time. I look for details and I do one of my favorite things which is to walk away and leave the scene. I begin the great hunt that takes me to the edges of the scene, the location, etc. Like sharks circling just outside the depth of where the sun’s rays fail to reach…you can see flashes of their glimmering bodies as they cruise the depths below. That fringe area is a goldmine.

And when I’m done I put it out of my mind.
I try to forget the place and the people and move on. Whether it was insanely good or insanely bad it can effect what comes next and I cant’ have that. Being haunted is a part of this game, so I know I have to deal with it but I don’t to make sure I’m in control, not the other way around. And then, you wind up and do it all again.

Taste of Uruguay: Navigating a Portrait

It was hours before the big show. The post breakfast drowsiness compounded by the sun through car windows as Martin navigates the streets of Montevideo. We have a plan. “These guys are going to be getting ready and we will try to get permission to photograph.” Flashes of light and dark, searing sun and reflections of inverted buildings. I close my eyes. Four of us, all waiting to see what we will see or what we won’t. “Llamadas” approaches but we want to “set the table” beforehand. We need to BUILD this story and body of work. We are here for about ten days, maybe more, and can only hope for so much. Little victories are what matters. We mostly ride in silence. Martin parks and we spill out of the tiny car. The scene is slow, mellow and movements can be FELT. There is no secret, we are all here to work, to make pictures and fortunately for us they are game to play. There is an inside area and an outside area, both with decent to good light. The sun is still high so the people outside hunt for shade. This is good for us. I start with the Leica, almost to get them used to me, but with the color and paint I know I want the square.

“Can I make your portrait?”
It begins. Open shade, broad light over my shoulder and now all I have to think about is focus and my composition. The square solves a lot of things for me, after all, it’s square. CLUNK, WIND, CLUNK, WIND. I’m wide open, at 2.8 and I’m at close focus. I only want his eyes sharp. At frame twelve I need to reload and the great dance begins. Flip the lever out, wind until I hear the leader come free, twist the side door, pull out the insert, unhinge the film, spool it tight, then slowly, VERY slowly lick the tape. This NEVER fails to get people involved. “Did you just lick that?” “Yes.” Take out new roll, pull off the tape, invert and load into the insert, spool the end, twist tight, insert the holder, close the back and wind until it stops. Pull the dark slide. “Listo?” I ask and move in again.

These images are not really up to me. I begin by putting myself in position but the rest comes from the other side of the lens. The first shot is serious with intensity in the gaze. During the second shot the serenity and connection are broken as someone from the edges says something. Like cracking through a sheet of ice. The genie is out of the bottle and now I can only react. If I force it and ask him to settle back into me it won’t work. The magic is gone, so I just stop talking and keep shooting. It’s nice for me. I like to be here, but invisible to those around me. I can have conversations with myself, or daydream, while I’m working. It’s part of being on the road, and part of life behind the lens.

Make it count. There is no need to shoot endless imagery. Ever been on the other side of the camera? “Relax and just be normal.” Impossible. It’s all artificial, we either both accept the game or we don’t bother playing. This is your chance to act and it’s the same for them. They are not themselves, not during these little moments. They are actors in the world stage and for just a brief moment I am the conductor, the composer or the chief mechanic. They don’t really know what it is I’m attempting to do. I must relay this by speech and emotion. Win them over, get them on my side and do to them what I need to do. Sometimes it feels good, other times no so much, but the internal battle is what makes it all interesting. And then suddenly it is gone. If it went well the memory alone will fuel you to the next encounter, and if it went poorly it can stain your mental existence for days, weeks, even longer perhaps. Fragility is real but worth continual exploration. Is it good enough? Am I good enough? Does any of it matter? There is a weight to the exposed film and comforting to look down and see the rolls piling up. I can’t see it, but I can feel what I have or what I missed. I try to be in the moment but my mind begins to build the mental puzzle of imagery. What pieces still remain?

As I close my eyes I see light blue and the stars upon a face.